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AUDI A8, Audi's flagship even better for 2000

By TONY WHITNEY

Audi Full Line Video footage (6:36)

Even Audi would probably agree than when well-heeled buyers think of big, prestigious, German sedans, it's the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7-Series that usually spring to mind first. In fact, buyers in this class are not exploring all their options unless they take a long, hard look at Audi's magnificent A8 flagship.

The A8 is every bit as luxurious and refined as its rivals from Stuttgart and Munich and in at least two respects it's much more advanced.

For starters, the A8 is built entirely from light, strong aluminum - and the manufacturing techniques don't simply duplicate those of conventional steel cars. Audi's unique space frame construction (ASF for Audi Space Frame) uses a combination of complex diecastings, intricate extrusions and more conventional stamped parts to create a body that's lighter and more advanced than anything else in the industry. Much of the finishing is by hand, making this a very special automobile. I've often visited the plant in Germany where these cars are produced and have never been more impressed with an auto assembly operation.

The second jewel in the A8's crown is Audi's outstanding Quattro all wheel drive system. The A8 is the only vehicle in its class to offer this kind of handling and safety bonus - you can't get anything like it on a rival car, though they do offer traction control systems.

For 2000, Audi has upgraded the A8 in various subtle ways. One mass-circulation US auto magazine commented that the old car couldn't have been improved on and I tend to agree with that. Audi must be commended, though, for trying to make a fine product even better.

In the engine department, the A8's silky-smooth V-8 now boasts five-valve-per-cylinder design like smaller engines in Audi's range. As a result, power and torque are both up. Subtle design changes include a modified grille, new headlights, new door handles and minor decor upgrades. I did say that changes for 2000 were subtle.

The A8's 310 horsepower engine provides great smoothness, refinement and flexibility. It also endows the big car with surprisingly brisk mid-range acceleration. With the Quattro all wheel drive system ready to go to work when the weather deteriorates, the A8 can be driven very quickly on winding roads in great safety. If disaster does strike, the car is equipped with an impressive array of air bags - including a head-level pair of side curtains which might be the best protection yet for side impacts.

The A8's interior treatment is as good as they get in this class. The car is trimmed in excellent taste and the choice of materials reflects a good deal of thought and expertise. There are small highlights of polished aluminum in the cockpit to remind the owner that his or her car is rather special when it comes to materials.

At very high speeds on the Autobahns in Germany, I found the new A8 capable of completely shutting out the racket of the highway and cocooning its occupants in peace and comfort. Head for the backroads and the car proves itself to be as ''chuckable'' as many a sports sedan.

There's no price yet for the 2000 A8, but the last model cost just over $90,000 (Canadian $) and no drastic changes are expected. TW